From Joshua Abelow’s project “Fourteen Paintings” in zingmagazine issue 24
Creative energy and instinct runs in Joshua Abelow’s family, passed down through the generations from his grandmother, his mother, and then to him and his sister. Growing up in Maryland, detached from the contemporary art world, this instinctual need to create art allowed him to develop a personal style based on the purity of form, the complexity of color, inferential reasoning, and a sense of humor. Abelow’s formal entrance into the New York art scene began just as organically, when gallerist James Fuentes discovered his work on Art Blog Art Blog, which Abelow started in 2010 as a means to get his art into the world. The blog not only allowed him to showcase his artwork alongside other creative figures he admired, but also served as an extension of his practice and as an artistic exercise with a distinct beginning and end. The blog inspired Abelow’s interest in curating, a role that is still very much tied to his work as an artist. Now with a project featured in the newest issue of zingmagazine, a series of paintings recently installed at Dikeou Collection, a gallery space in Baltimore, and an upcoming show at James Fuentes Gallery, 2015 seems to be the year when all his creative endeavors will coalesce more potently than ever.
Interview by Hayley Richardson
Where are you right now?
I’m in a gigantic hay barn that I rented to make large paintings for the summer in Maryland, where I grew up.
When did you move into the barn? When did you start doing this?
I started doing it last summer. I found this barn on Craig’s List sort of by chance. I was home visiting family and was just messing around on Craig’s List to see what might be available in terms of studio space and I got lucky. Last summer was great and I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided do it again.
How big are the paintings you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a series of paintings that are 98 inches by 78 inches. Last summer I made 80-inch by 60-inch paintings and then a few other ones that were a little bit smaller than that. You know in New York, everything is so . . . you know there is a different energy out here which is kind of great because there’s obviously the space and the head space, but then there’s also, you know, there’s like ducks and chickens running around. It’s the complete opposite of working in New York.
Are you still working in a similar style, with your geometric backgrounds and color patterning?
That kind of geometric work is ongoing. It’s like a daily ritual and keeps me busy no matter what. But also this past winter I focused on a lot of drawing, and now some of these larger paintings are based on the drawings.
In your curatorial statement for the latest issue of zing you wrote a poem, and I am curious how you would characterize the interplay between your poetry and your visual artwork.
I think there’s definitely a relationship, and maybe sometimes it’s more obvious and sometimes it’s not as obvious but everything I do is connected. The poems are diaristic. I used to keep handwritten journals, but then the blog replaced that and the poems are a way for me to continue messing around with words. There was a time a few years ago that I was only painting words. The relationship between text and image continues to interest me quite a lot.
In the poem you say that the pictures were inspired by dancing figures in a movie. Is this a literal statement, and if so what movie was it?
It’s not really literal, it’s more metaphorical.
What’s the story behind the “Famous Artist” paintings in your zing project?
There’s a Bruce Nauman quote that’s been stuck in my mind for years—referring to one of his neon signs he says, “It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It’s true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself.” I did a show called “Famous Artist” in Brussels in 2012. I had never done a show in Europe and I thought the title might get people’s attention, which it did
We recently installed “Call Me Abstract” at Dikeou Collection, a series of 36 paintings with your cell phone number. Visitors have called this number and left voice messages for you. Have you listened to them?
Yes, I have. I’ve gotten a number of phone calls and some text messages. If I don’t pick up the phone I always listen to the message and sometimes I might respond with a text. I started developing the “Call Me” idea in early 2007. The first paintings just said “Call Me” and then I wanted to literalize that idea by painting my phone number. One time, actually more than once, a professor called me up and put me on speakerphone with his class while I was eating lunch. And you know that’s kind of the idea—to create an unexpected situation with painting.
“Call Me Abstract” is painted on burlap, as well as a few other of your paintings. Why did you choose to start working with this material?
I paint on burlap, I paint on linen, I paint on canvas. I’ve experimented a lot with all kinds of different materials. My work is often systematic and pre-planned, and so the burlap, because there’s a great texture to it, it butts up against the paint in interesting ways and there’s always room for the paint to do something unpredictable like bleed. I buy the stuff at Jo-Ann Fabrics and I can tell that the people who work there wonder who this guy is showing up to buy burlap all the time.
I was looking at some of your new work on your website where you have reproductions of modernist works by artists like Magritte, Kirchner, and Pollock with the Mr. Peanut character inserted into it. Could you discuss what these are about?
That’s a specific body of work that I produced for a show that I did with two artists in Brooklyn recently at this gallery called 247365. The show was called “Situational Comedy” and it featured work by me alongside Brad Phillips who is based in Toronto and a guy named R Lyon who lives in New York. The whole idea was to put together a show of work that might not look like other work we’ve made, or at least that’s how I was thinking about it. One of the things that was funny and interesting was that at the opening people would come up to me and say, “Hey, we know you’re in the show, where’s your work?,” and I would be standing next to one of the pieces. There’s a performative element to a lot of what I do and the conversations at the opening seemed to embody the spirit of what I was trying to do. Mr. Peanut is basically a stand in for me. I wanted to take out my hand all together and just make something from appropriated imagery. I was thinking a lot about Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” ideas. Eliminating my hand changed the decision-making process and put more emphasis on placement and scale. Those works are really small—a little larger than postcards.
I’ve read that Magritte in particular is very influential on you, so I understand why you would use one of his pieces. Could you talk about the other artists that you included?
All six images that you’re talking about were taken from art books that I’ve collected over the years and those are some of the images that I keep around the studio and look at all the time. When I make drawings I often lift material from these art books. Another thing I like about the Mr. Peanut works is that they are reproductions of reproductions of reproductions so the content of the work is layered and not as straightforward as it might appear. This interest in reproduction was something I explored in my blog for five years and those Mr. Peanut pieces are strongly related to the blog, and in a way, the end of the blog because I stopped running the blog around the time of the opening.
Your drawings generally have a more fluid and varied appearance than your paintings, and have a distinct lack of color. To me they are reminiscent of drawings by people like Warhol, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso. The drawings and paintings share certain aesthetic tropes like the stick figure, running witch, and use of text, but they seem to be coming from a very different place in your mind than the paintings. I’ve even noticed that the paintings and drawings are exhibited separately from one other in galleries. Can you talk about the relationship, or even the dividing factors, these two mediums have for you?
Yeah, I think a lot of what you just said is totally true. In simple formal terms, with drawing, I’ve always been interested in line and gesture, and with painting I’ve always been more interested in form and color and shape. Most of the solo shows I’ve done have featured drawings and paintings but not side by side. My first show in New York was at James [Fuentes Gallery] in January of 2011 and I, very intentionally, set up a situation where I had small paintings on the left side of the room and on the right side of the room I had my drawings. The idea was to create a situation where the drawings on the right side of the room would essentially undermine or argue with the logic of the paintings on the left side and vice versa. In the drawings I was satirizing the idea of the “painter” in the spirit of Paul McCarthy’s piece “PAINTER.” I wanted the entire exhibition to function on a satirical level. It was sort of up to the viewer to come in and determine what was going on and to try to make sense of it. I’m always thinking about that kind of thing in my work – I’m always thinking about the relationship between things – the relationship between paintings and drawings, or the relationship between, say, a geometric painting next to a painting that has my phone number on it or a face or some other figurative reference. And I am interested essentially in storytelling, but a kind of abstract storytelling where the viewer really has to do legwork and get mentally involved.
So you’re bringing them together more? Would they be exhibited in an integrated way like that too?
Well, like the running witch that you brought up before, I don’t know if you’ve seen too many of those paintings because it’s a relatively new image that I started developing last summer and that came directly out of drawing. And even the stick man with the top hat and the funny dancing shoes, that came out of drawing, too. So there are moments when the paintings and the drawings gel and then there are moments when they dissipate and don’t look anything alike. I like that fluidity, I want there to be that kind of openness. I think of it like experimental music – rhythms going in and out.
You come from a family of artists. Your sister, Tisch, is a painter, curator, and blogger. I’ve noticed that her paintings have a similar emphasis on geometric formality and color interaction as yours do. Can you talk about what kind of influence you two have on each other’s work, or life in general?
Yeah. I think my sister and I were both influenced by our grandmother who is a really wonderful painter. She’s 92 years old and lives and works in West Virginia. She studied at Cooper Union back in the late ‘40s, but she never pursued a career as an artist, and I don’t think that was even an idea that would have been remotely possible for her at the time. But we grew up with some of her paintings and drawings in the house and she had her work up at her place, and I would say her work is reductive . . . it’s based on observation but it’s definitely reductive—shape, color, line. So, I would say that my sister and I are both indebted to her. My sister originally wanted to be a writer (like our mom). She went to Sarah Lawrence to study creative writing and didn’t make her way into painting until later. In fact, I think she actively avoided painting for a long time because that’s what her older brother was doing and she wanted to do her own thing. When she was a senior she took a painting class and started painting at that time and has really kept it up since then.
Yeah, I’m almost thinking of like this genetic thing that’s embedded in you guys, that you sort of share this aesthetic between you all that just grows through the generations. Like if one of you two had kids one day you could see it manifest again in some other way.
Absolutely. In 2013 I published a monograph called Art Fiction with reproductions of my work alongside some images by my sister and images by my grandmother. My sister and I showed our work together at a small artist run space in Philly back in 2010, and my grandmother and I exhibited together at the Prague Biennial a few years ago, and that opportunity led to a small solo presentation of her work at a gallery in Milan called Lucie Fontaine. My sister and I went over there for the opening. My grandmother couldn’t go but she was excited about it anyway.
In 2010 you started your Art Blog Art Blog where you posted your poems, as well as excerpts from books, information and images about other galleries, shows, and artists you were interested in. It was updated constantly; averaging 2500 posts a year and had a sizeable following. Why did you decide to stop updating the blog this past March?
You know there’s another interesting Bruce Nauman quote that I wanted to get into this interview. This one is taken from an interview he did in 1978, and he says, “Art is a means to acquiring an investigative activity.” And that kind of thinking is what got me started with the blog. Unlike other blogs, I was thinking of my blog as a form of artistic activity, and so in other words it was always intended to be an art project in and of itself so therefore it would have a start and it would have a finish. When I started it I wasn’t sure how long I would keep it up but when I hit the five year mark it felt like a good time to stop because otherwise I think I would have wanted to do an entire decade and it was too much. I felt like I made the point after five years. It didn’t really seem necessary anymore.
It seems like with how much you interacted with it, it seemed like something that was really part of your routine. Was it strange when you stopped doing it? Did you have to remind yourself, “No, I’m not blogging anymore. I’m not doing that today.”
That’s a great question. The thing that’s really strange about it all is that there was a lot of nervousness on my end leading up to the end, but after I finished it I felt uncomfortable for about an hour or two. I look back and I can’t even believe I spent that much time doing it. I don’t even think about it now. It’s weird.
Yeah, that’s kind of surprising to me actually. I figured it would have been something that you would have been more attached to as far as seeing something and being like, “Oh, that’s cool I’ll put it on my blog. No wait, I can’t.”
Well you know what saved me was Instagram.
Yeah, that’s what I assumed. And that leads into my next question: Looking back at an old interview in a 2012 with Frank Exposito for James Fuentes Gallery, you mention a self-portrait you made in 2003 with a television on your head, and related the artist and the television as transmitters and receivers of information. As an artist who uses the internet heavily, especially with Instagram now, do you think the computer is now the more dominant force in this exchange, or does the television still maintain the same power you attributed to it 12 years ago?
Hmmm, I definitely think it’s all about the computer. I think in that interview I said “television” and I meant television basically because at that time when I made that work, it wasn’t immediately following 9/11 I guess but it was in the wake of that, and I was living in New York not far from where that happened. And I think every artist and every person in New York and elsewhere was trying to grapple with what happened, and it’s like how do you make something, how do you make a painting or a meaningful artwork when an event of that magnitude has happened. So basically for a long time I was leaving my television on watching the news nonstop and I started making work again with the TV on and I was watching TV all the time while I was in the studio. But with the TV, when I said it, I meant it more metaphorically like the way we connect to technological devices to get information and having this connectivity has changed the world and continues to change the world.
Yeah, and I saw that when we posted “Call Me Abstract” on Instagram you were instantly engaged with it and put it on your blog right before it ended, so I thought it was kind of cool that connection was made at a somewhat crucial time because it was just really days before you ended the blog so it was kind of cool that it made it up there at that time.
It’s also, I mean, the phone number piece at Dikeou is coming right out of the same kind of logic as the painting you’re describing with the television on my head. It’s this idea, with the phone number, it’s a self-portrait in the technological age—like these numbers signify me. Even beyond that they signify New York…anybody who’s lived in New York knows that it’s the 917 number, it’s a New York phone number, there’s this relationship to the idea of “the New York artist” which is really intentional because if I didn’t have a 917 number I don’t know if I would have even…I might have made something else. I wanted those numbers to signify a bunch of different things but in the most basic abstract way.
Yeah, I can relate to that because living in Denver I don’t have a Denver area code on my phone number and so when I share my phone number with people it immediately brings questions like, “Oh, where’s that from? How long have you lived here,” that kind of stuff. So it is definitely tied with your identity.
Definitely. And you know I think that’s also young artists, or artists of any age I guess, who are moving . . . I mean I always say New York and I don’t know if it’s old fashioned or not but I still feel like New York is where (L.A. too) artists still want to go. You know young artists are moving there out of art school to go make an identity for themselves, you know, so this idea of a 917 number, a New York number, it’s something so many people can identify with. It’s like that same thing if you’re from Maryland or wherever and you move to New York and get a New York state driver’s license, it’s like the birth of a new identity.
In another 2012 interview with Matthew Schnipper for The Fader, you made a comment about there being a growing number of people who make art as a career whereas you make art out of necessity. You’ve been quite fortunate, though, to make a living doing what you love. Do you feel like the “career artists” make things more challenging for the ones working out of pure passion? How do these two types of artists interact with each other, or how do you see the differences in how they navigate the art world?
Hmm…well, I think of myself as a late bloomer. I didn’t have my first show in New York until I was thirty-four, which by today’s standards is on the late side. Many of my peers started showing way before I did and I just plugged along. Now I feel much more connected to younger artists—a lot of the artists I talk to the most are a decade younger than I am and I like that actually. If I’d grown up in New York City with parents who were in the art world and taking me to all the art openings and if I had been exposed to the world of contemporary art at a young age, then I’m sure I might not have felt that pursuing art was going to be like climbing down into a dark tunnel for the rest of my life. But in Maryland where I grew up that just wasn’t the way it was—when I told people I wanted to be an artist they just looked at me blankly and I could tell they felt sorry for me. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art or that you could make a living as an artist, really. I wasn’t thinking about it from a practical stance—I just knew that I was an artist and that I would do whatever I could to keep the world from robbing me of what I felt compelled to do.
Would you say that you’re surprised at all by your own success, or expect it to grow into what it’s become now?
I think being an artist is a gamble. I think what happened with me is that a real shift in my thinking occurred when I was in graduate school I stopped thinking of myself as a “painter” and started to think of myself as a person involved with art as an activity in a broader sense. I got interested in Peter Halley’s writing and I became more aware of the role that art can have on a social level. And that really opened up a lot of doors. I’m happy that I have been able to carve out a space as an artist and I want to continue to push the work forward and work hard.
Can you talk about your background/experience as a curator?
Curating came out of Art Blog Art Blog and Art Blog Art Blog came out of my studio-work so I think of curating as an extension of my studio. I think that’s really why I started the blog—thinking a lot about arrangements of things. The other thing about the blog is that when I first started it I was not showing my work much, I didn’t have gallery representation, I wasn’t even living in New York at the time, and so it was a way for me to contextualize my own work alongside the work of other artists and whatever else in any way that I wanted. If you go back into the archive, the first year or so of the blog is primarily images and a lot more of my own work and my own poems in there because I was trying to get some visibility for myself. It was surprisingly effective. Less than a year after starting the blog I started working with James and suddenly there were a lot of eyes on what I was doing, and so I kind of backed off a little bit on featuring my own work on the blog and became more interested in showing work by other emerging artists. It was an exciting time in NYC because the market had crashed and there was a lot of DIY energy in the air and I think ABAB captured that energy and harnessed it to an extent. I started showing work by famous artists, both living and dead, alongside someone like a 23 year old that I met in Brooklyn and did a studio visit and thought their work was interesting and it might have some kind of obvious or not so obvious relationship to, let’s say Magritte or whoever. And then I would put it online and allow the viewer to make these visual and conceptual connections. It was so amazing to feature certain artists—you know I would promote certain people on the blog and the next thing you know they’d be showing all over the place. I had a strong hand in it that, although I didn’t really expect the blog to have that much influence. That happened organically. But yeah, that’s how I got into curating.
Is curating something you would like to continue to do?
I’m running a semi-anonymous space in Baltimore. Right now we’re on the tenth show. It’s been interesting, it’s been a way for me to sort of crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into Art Blog Art Blog—a more focused version because the gallery is named after Freddy Kruger, and all the shows are sort of dealing with . . . there’s a kind of dark humor vibe to the shows that we’re doing.
What are you currently reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?
Keith Mayerson sent me Eric Fischl’s memoir, Bad Boy, which I have been enjoying. I’m half way through it. And the chickens and ducks, those guys are the true inspiration.
What else do you have coming up in the near future?
I’m working on a show for Fuentes, which I think is going to be in January. I don’t want to say too much about it because I want it to be a surprise but I will say that it’s going to be a multifaceted show with an Internet component.
Last fall I did a two-man show with Gene Beery, and I interviewed him when I did my first Art Blog newspaper. Gene is a text-based painter who also messes around a little with video and photography. Gene has been a huge part of my blog—an active contributor for at least two years, and when I knew the blog would end Gene and I did a countdown—everyday he’d send me a new image that said something like “14 days remaining” or whatever with a design. Anyway, Gene is an under-recognized artist who is one of my heroes and so it’s been amazing to have this ongoing web-based collaboration with him. And last fall our collaboration was translated into a two-man show at this artist-run spot called Bodega in New York and at Freddy in Baltimore. Now we’re working on collaborative silkscreens. I don’t know where the silkscreens will end up yet but I just wanted to talk about it for a minute because I’m pretty excited about it.